Film soundtracks have been on the rise. This March, for the first time in nearly two decades, the soundtracks for two films — Black Panther and The Greatest Showman — landed at #1 and #2 on the Billboard 200 chart. They are, of course, two very different soundtracks — one was executive produced by Kendrick Lamar and features established talent from across the rap world and another is a musical about the circus — but it felt like the commercial high water mark of a trend that started over a decade ago, with the proliferation of the Twilight soundtracks and the rise of marquee artists who contributed to the 50 Shades franchise.
Those types of soundtracks have their place, but they aren’t the kind that we set out to honor with this list. Instead, we’re more interested in the art of how music is utilized in a film — how a good score elevates certain scenes, or how it bows out at the exact right time to let the narrative take hold. Of course, not one but two of the films on this list could qualify as movie-musicals, but they’re also first and foremost movies about music and the ways in which it can make us or irreparably break us. Without further adieu, let’s dive into some of the most noteworthy film soundtracks of the year, presented in alphabetical order…
A Star Is Born
There’s a lot of nits one could pick with A Star Is Born, but on the whole it really works, and more importantly the music works, both on its own and in service to the plot. A Star Is Born had one of the largest cultural footprints of this year and with good reason. Chief among them is “Shallow,” a song that will absolutely be shouted along to in wedding halls and karaoke rooms for years to come. And, hey, the rest isn’t too shabby either. Maybe even better than “Shallow” is “Always Remember Us This Way,” a piano ballad that finds Lady Gaga doing a killer Elton John impression. There are some groaners — I’m not a huge fan of most of Bradley Cooper’s cuts, sorry Jason Isbell — but even those make sense within the context of the film itself. As far as massive music blockbusters go, you can’t do much better than A Star Is Born, which is sad and entertaining and romantic and ends up being pretty good at all of it. Why’d you do that to me?!
Annihilation is a film about exploration and self-discovery. For its first two-thirds, it plays out sort of like a road movie and its score, composed by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, mimics that form. It’s filled with scratchy guitars that evoke a dusty Western sentimentality, as the five members of the research team sent into the Shimmer take in the wonder and the beauty of this mutated world as the terrifying consequences linger in the background. But as Natalie Portman’s character forges ahead into the film’s final 30 minutes, the music takes on a distinct shift. The surreal closing sequence — which acts as an homage to 2001 and, more recently, the mirrored nature of Under The Skin — is where Barrow’s handiwork really comes into play. The stabbing synths in “The Alien,” the track that plays out over the film’s climax, are disorienting and nausea-inducing. It’s one of the best music cues in a movie this year, though I’m a little miffed that the film’s trailer used them so frequently as it sort of lessens their effect in the film itself. But divorced from that context, down the line the last moments on Annihilation will be something to be treasured — an ambitious impressionistic dance to human nature’s inevitable end.
If a very cool eighth grader were to listen to classical electronic music, they might actually listen to Anna Meredith, whose music is often effervescently fun. Her score for Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade, is a mixture of new material and previously composed pieces, culled from the English composer’s earlier work. It’s whimsical and cotton-candy hued, exaggerated to such a degree that it sounds sort of terrifying, like the rush of emotions any 13-year-old going through the throes of puberty would have. The most memorable sequence in the film music-wise is the pool party: It’s soundtracked by an older Meredith track, “Nautilis,” and it’s beautifully rendered in the movie, its obnoxious horns and dramatic upswing making that long, awkward walk out to the pool into a waking nightmare. It’s moments like this that stand out, but even Meredith’s more subtle work — say, the pillowy synths that undertone many of Elsie Fisher’s video blogs — have just as much resonance.
The Favourite largely utilizes classical compositions, from Vivaldi and Bach and Handel, and it uses them in unique ways and to unsettling ends. Yorgos Lathimos’ twisted tale of palace intrigue is ornately disgusting — it’s 18th century England at its most grotesque and ruthless. The music used throughout does a lot of work to exacerbate the splendor, the paranoia, and the insular nature of the Queen’s inner circle. Lathimos also used classical music in The Lobster to similar effect — the way sound works in his films requires a lot of drop outs and sharp cuts, which makes the older pieces feel refreshed, like variations on a theme. One of the most striking sequences in the film is a dance scene that uses contemporary moves with a string-heavy exuberance. Lathimos really brings out the piercing quality in these classical pieces, keeping the high-octane drama while leaving out the calmer notes. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the twists and turns and personal machinations of the plot, and it lends the whole film with an air of sumptuous decadence.
First Man is a pretty run-of-the-mill biopic, partly boring by design. Director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer purposefully position Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) as a bland everyman, a massive historical figure who was in fact kind of an introverted nerd. There aren’t a whole lot of ways to make math and physics and the actual nitty gritty of space travel pop on screen, and that’s part of the appeal to the film. There’s a workmanlike quality to it, where there are many long and wordless sequences with lots of knob-twisting and figuring out how it all works in the moment. These scenes are elevated by Justin Hurwitz’s majestic score, which imbues these trial and errors with a stately purpose. The space scenes play out in accurate slow-motion, and Hurwitz’s score supports their airless atmosphere. The most evocative moment is, of course, the big payoff: That descent onto the moon and those first few steps lead to a stunning sequence, both visually and sonically, that makes the protracted build-up worth it.
Horror movies have traditionally played host to some of film’s best scores — see John Carpenter revisiting his iconic Halloween theme for its 2018 reboot — and Colin Stetson’s work on Hereditary easily joins the pantheon. A saxophonist by trade who made his name on collaborations with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, Stetson makes the hellish family dynamics of the film percolate with an unsettling inevitability. But its a testament to Stetson’s fastidiousness that you often don’t even notice the score is there, until it’s screaming right in your face. In our interview with Stetson about the movie’s atmosphere, he explains that that was one of his goals was that the music never attracted attention to itself. “I noticed that whenever something became too conventionally thematic or melodic, it really stuck out like a sore thumb,” he said. And yet for something that’s meant to act as a ghost in the film itself, his score really makes its mark, leaving the viewer stuck with a sense of unease long after the film is done.
It’s a tragedy that Jóhann Jóhannsson is no longer with us, both because he died so young and because, judging by his score on Mandy, the composer was really just hitting his stride. In the past, he’d picked up Oscar noms for his work on Sicario and The Theory Of Everything, but in Mandy he found a batshit enough movie to really let his basest impulses fly. The film it accompanies, directed by Panos Cosmatos and starring Nicolas Cage, is full of brutality and jarring tonal shifts. Jóhannsson matches each one of them beautifully and tragically, with a score that is as claustrophobic and doom-heavy and bright, bright red as the film itself.
Phantom Thread / You Were Never Really Here
Jonny Greenwood won the Radiohead soundtrack wars. Though Thom Yorke’s first-ever score for Suspiria had its moments, it was mostly as meandering as the film it was written for. Meanwhile, Greenwood put in some career-best work with a pair of scores for Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here. The former turned into something of a cultural touchstone — that unnervingly beautiful epic repeating suite immediately evokes the relationship dynamics of the movie. And his score for You Were Never Really Here is grainy and textured, keeping some of the terse strings of Phantom Thread while incorporating more electronic and dance elements into its violent fever dream landscape. That Greenwood could put out two excellent and diverse yet complementary score in a year shows that he really is at the top of his game. Sorry, Thom.
Vox Lux is a fascinating and ambitious movie that has a lot to say about what we expect from celebrity. Most of the fictional pop star Celeste’s songs don’t come in until the end of the film — save her big breakthrough hit, which was written in the wake of a school shooting and made her go viral — and they’re just competent enough to make you understand why they would be popular. But the lyrics are filled with so many cliché and corny turns of phrase that, coming from Sia and Greg Kurstin — both of whom know how to write a motherfucking pop song — it has to be a deliberate send-up. Their glitzy, heavily digitized take on vapid pop music stands in stark contrast to the ornate score from the reclusive avant-gardist Scott Walker, which plays out the decay and American tragedy in gorgeous and deliberate slow motion.